Walk into the basement of the Chelsea Public Library, and if you have an appointment or know who to ask for, you can meet George Ostler – the City’s unofficial historian who spends many of his days digging through old records in a room set up for his research.
While your down there, you might also see Ron and Leo Robinson – who with Ostler – have uncovered amazing pieces of history about African Americans in Chelsea, including the details of inventor Lewis Latimer and his noteworthy ancestors.
There are many cities and towns – especially in Massachusetts – that claim great historical roots. Listen to these three men for more than 10 minutes, and you’ll realize Chelsea’s claim is the real deal.
There are a lot of people who have heard of or listened to the marvelous stories about groundbreaking Chelsea residents of the past from the mouths of Ostler and the Robinsons.
A lot of people know about some of these things.
But not everybody knows.
Now is perhaps a particularly unique time to let everyone know about the extraordinary people and events in Chelsea from year’s past.
The Silver Line is getting ready to lay down roots in the City, and it will certainly be a new chapter in the City’s history as it connects to a part of Boston that for so many years was “can’t get there from here” territory. Within that new Silver Line project is several new bus stations, a new commuter rail station and a lengthy pedestrian pathway.
Why couldn’t these stations and this pathway also become Chelsea’s Freedom Trail? Ostler has written and spoken about tremendous – but forgotten – treasures – of national history that happened in Chelsea or to Chelsea residents. He has certainly gotten the word out, but nothing could be more powerful than a permanent public exhibit along what will be one of the most heavily travelled routes in Chelsea for years to come.
Hundreds of people every day would be able to learn and access the wonderful stories of Chelsea people who lived through or lived out key events in American history.
Most recently, I was over at the library and Ostler handed me a book written by a former mayor of Chelsea, Frank Fay (the namesake of Fay Square). Fay was known as the ‘War Mayor,’ Ostler told me, and served in the Sanitation Corps during the entirety of the Civil War. The book, and Fay’s personal story, was nothing short of amazing. Within the pages of the memoir was a firsthand witness account of nearly every conflict in the Civil War – from Bull Run to the Wilderness to Antietam. He was at all of them, and he provided a rare, detailed look into that piece of American history through the eyes of a man from Chelsea.
Ostler smiled as he took the book back, saying, “Can you believe that?”
It is unbelievable, but exciting because it is true.
Of course, Chelsea also has a rich history for African Americans as well – including the groundbreaking Latimer Family and the large role played by the city’s residents in the Underground Railroad. There, of course, are still many more untold stories in that vein that could be pushed out to the masses.
It’s time to get Ostler’s and the Robinson’s research into the public domain – and let it be a legacy to Ostler and all of the hours of research he has devoted to this City’s detailed history.
Now is the time to advocate for such a thing.
The Silver Line project is a $60 million endeavor, and it is currently under design and those spending the money and drawing up the plans are looking for input and ideas from the public. Such an opportunity doesn’t come around often, and including historical exhibits at MBTA stations isn’t unheard of.
Several Red Line and Green Line Stations on the MBTA system have detailed exhibits provided by local historical societies. Perhaps a little more money could be found somewhere by members of the state delegation to include a “freedom trail” in the project that is above and beyond anything else in the Boston area.
Each station could be dedicated to some subject matter, and numerous placards could line the walkway so people could exercise, travel and learn about where they live. We’ll let the subject matter be decided by the experts. No doubt, there is no shortage of captivating events to relay and set in stone.
If ever there was a time and a place for the past to come alive, this is it.